way I used to love
him completely once, in that way I used to love: no reservations,
no shame. I spent the evening with him in London, 1984 an
evening so perfect that afterwards I walked over bridges wondering
if there was any point in continuing to live, since I'd just experienced
In time, though, like Eve in the garden, I learned to feel shame
for my naked adoration. And, to be truthful, he changed, too. He
lost his edge, stopped shouting, stopped drinking too much, started
obsessing over loss, started telling long stories too slowly. It
wasn't as fun to spend time with him anymore. His introspection
got on my nerves. I moved on.
I'm speaking, obviously, of Elvis Costello, who I first heard as
a sophomore in college. One of my housemates, a rich boy, had a
record player that, instead of lying flat, stood on its edge. The
record locked into place and the needle tracked across the surface,
supposedly putting less wear on the vinyl grooves. He had big speakers
with perfect sound, this rich boy, and a small grin, as he turned
the volume way up, lit a cigarette and let me hear, for the first
time, Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom.
I wish I could make you hear the first song on that album as I
write this. I wish you knew what it was like to be in that living
room with the late winter sun making sharp angles through the rich
boy's cigarette smoke and the scratchy hiss of the needle on the
There's a small shout, perhaps someone in the band signaling the
start of the song. There's the sound of the hi-hat and one note
from the bass before the guitar starts. Then Elvis starts singing,
in this weird voice, a voice that shouldn't logically have sold
millions of records. A voice more suited, one could argue, for a
I won't write more about the music. To describe the sound or how
it made me feel would be harder than describing the smell of moss
and earth on the hill behind my childhood home, where I'd play with
miniature cars and round, wooden people, pretending the moss was
a forest. And besides, either you love the music or you don't; I
can't expect you to love it just because I did or because of how
I describe it.
Like the time I shared with my housemates the cookies my grandmother
mailed me every Christmas cookies that tasted perfect to
me, the best cookies ever made, but which my housemates took one
bite from and then tossed to the dog, citing unbearable staleness.
Let's just say that Imperial Bedroom grabbed me by the proverbial
balls and I fell in love with Elvis Costello. His earlier albums,
I soon discovered, were even greater, because he screamed and yelled,
was angry and drunken.
I was so broke in those days that I rarely bought music. I bummed
music off other people, making cassette copies or taping music off
the radio. But I did buy a few Elvis Costello tapes and bought little
speakers for my Walkman so I could listen to music in my car.
I remember bringing home the cassette version of Punch the Clock
when the album was brand new, driving back up the curvy Vermont
hills from Brattleboro to Marlboro. I remember the very curve where
I first heard that album, at least as much of it as I could before
my Walkman batteries ran down. It was the curve by the auto-body
place, about a half-mile out of Brattleboro. This album wasn't nearly
as good as the earlier work, but in those days I was blind to his
faults and in the car that day I listened carefully, trying to decipher
each word and holding the melodies in my head like truffles on the
A few years later I was at graduate school learning to be a world-famous
painter when I told someone that I liked Elvis. "Oh yeah?"
he said. "I thought only pimply, nerdy college boys with no
friends liked Elvis Costello." That was the moment I put my
cassettes back in their boxes and never listened to them again.
Was I that shallow? Could a casual remark lump me, who I thought
to be original, unusual and cool, with a subclass of pimply, friendless
I think I probably was that shallow. But maybe it was just time
for some new music in my life and, by that point, Elvis had changed.
His lyrics now seemed more important to him than his music. You
couldn't shout along to his new music. You had to croon it, singing
each syllable long and low.
Recently, though, my boyfriend, knowing of my past obsession, gave
me a tall stack of Elvis CDs most of which I'd never heard
of, or had only owned on pirated cassettes. Among them was Imperial
Bedroom. He loaded the five-disc player with Elvis and said,
"We'll just get some Crazy Glue and glue this shut."
I laughed, not sure I wanted to hear that much Elvis, not even
sure I liked him anymore since he'd made all those bad albums, changed
his name from the fake "Elvis Costello" to the real one
Declan McManus performed on top of a white convertible
stretch limo with Burt Bacharach in some wacky comedy film and married
jazz diva Diana Krall. It was like being confronted with the boy
I had a crush on in 8th grade.
There was also some shame in being 41 and once again listening
to the music that defined my early adulthood. If I listened to Elvis
again, I'd be no different than the musically stunted people who
listen to those Classic Rock radio stations.
Once the CDs started playing, though, the music was good. It was
really good. We listened to it every day for a month, that
load of five CDs. We've rotated a few out by now, replaced them
with some non-Elvis.
But when we push "random" and "play," Elvis
returns every few songs and he sounds damn fine.